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Lack of skilled trades delays Navy shipbuilding

United Steelworkers Local 8888 Charles Spivey works in his office. April 9, 2024. Steve Walsh
United Steelworkers Local 8888 Charles Spivey works in his office. April 9, 2024. Steve Walsh

Charles Spivey came to Newport News, Virginia from North Carolina 40 years ago to work in the shipbuilding industry. For the last six years, he’s been president of United Steelworkers Local 8888. Their roughly 12,000 shipbuilders work for Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc. (HII)

"There's only one company in the world that can produce a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, and that's right here in the city where we do it," he said.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro recently announced most of the Navy’s new ships are one to three years behind schedule, including the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the first Columbia-class submarines, and the next round of Virginia-class submarines produced in Newport News. Shipyards around the country have similar backlogs.

The Navy said one of its biggest problems is the difficulty finding skilled tradespeople. Roughly 1.4 million manufacturing jobs were lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those people never came back, Spivey said.

"COVID gave you an opportunity to explore, because some people were at home or laid off or took a break," he said. "They had to find work and they did find work. You probably lost some of your skilled people."

Shipbuilding is still a good living. People with experience earn more than $30 per hour, with quality healthcare and retirement benefits. But after the pandemic, other sectors of the economy became more competitive, at a time when many manufacturers are clamoring for skilled workers.

Spivey said newer workers often expect to move up the ladder. Fewer people want to spend a lifetime honing a skill, said Spivey, who noted that's a change from when he began to work in the shipbuilding industry. 

"I remember my mentor," Spivey said. "He wanted to be the best truck driver he could be. He didn't need management. He didn't need anything."

The industry is now assuring prospective employees that they'll be able to move off the deck plates and into jobs in management, planning or engineering. Companies also are paying for college tuition.

"Our labor market has changed pretty dramatically post COVID,"said Xavier Beale, Vice President of Human Resources and Trades at HII. "As we transition out of COVID, the wage escalation that we saw is a contributing factor towards our ability to retain talent, when the service industry increased their wages by more than 50%. The defense industrial base, and in particular shipbuilding, is now competing in market spaces where we never have before."

HII plans to hire 3,000 people a year, enough to keep its workforce at the level needed to fullfil its Navy contracts. Attrition is still an issue, but fewer people are leaving now than immediately after the pandemic, Beale said.

The company and the Navy are leaning heavily on training programs. It used to take 5 years to get a skilled tradesperson up to speed. Beale said the company is partnering with trade schools and has beefed up its in-house training to drive that time down to 18 months.

The labor shortage also has pushed the industry to get creative, bringing on older workers such as Mary Cupp, who has worked three years at HII in Newport News. She's a marine painter and has been working on the USS Massachusetts, the Navy’s next Virginia Class submarine. Before that, she worked in sales.

"My husband was retiring," Cupp said. "And because he's a little bit older than me, I needed to get some good benefits and still keep a good pay. So I chose the shipyard and they hired me at 59 (years old)."

Cupp had only painted around the house before she came to the shipyard. She says she loves the work.

"I do, I love it," she said. "I didn't know that I would, but I do. Once I get to my job, I can work at my own pace. Obviously, sometimes there is a little pressure to get something done quickly, but pretty much you decide how you want to work your area."

The industry also has been leaning on patriotism. The Navy is funding the private Blue Forge Alliance, which is sponsoring Major League Baseball this season. Its goal is to train more than 10,000 manufacturing workers per year over the next decade, as the baby boomers retire and the labor market tightens even further. 

The Manufacturing Institute projects 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled by 2030. That includes the skilled trades who maintain Navy ships, though unlike steel or auto manufacturing, shipbuilding isn’t likely to be outsourced to other countries.

"We're not only fighting against what we need, but we're also fighting against auto repair shops, wind energy, anything that needs a skilled trade," said Joe Frommelt of the Virginia Ship Repair Association. "We're fighting those demands that those industries are putting on that whole labor force."

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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